It's always chic to make fun of holiday letters. People can't win, whether they earnestly recount their fellowship missions to poor countries (self-important), brag about European vacations (must be nice) or simply bore with accounts of school plays or travails in their gardens.
The habit of knocking holiday letters is now not just snark shared between friends, but has become an annual journalistic tradition.
Holiday letters can be "insufferable" and "deadly boring," Laura Vanderkam complains in Fast Company. "There's often a subtext of social competition," according to Peggy Drexler in The Wall Street Journal. And those are in articles that defend the tradition.
"There's little point to writing a Christmas update now," Nina Burleigh wrote last year for Time. "The urge to share has already been well sated."
The holiday card has indeed, like so much else, been forever altered and perhaps endangered by the Internet. What I don't understand is the urge to dance on its grave.
Hoover's complaint is that too many photo cards look like they've been torn from some mythic catalog of My Great and Clever Self and are wholly impersonal. He's put off not just by the preening he sees in the perfectly arranged family photographs, but the fact that he's receiving pre-printed messages that have nothing to do with him.
"Even the font seems smug," Hoover writes.
Oh, smug font. How upsetting.
There's no question that people have mixed motives when they send out their cards. No doubt they want to put the best face on their own lives, offering an annual report marked more by pride, perhaps, than honesty.
Does this surprise anyone? Would it somehow be more festive to recount the slings and arrows, the illnesses and petty failures that may have marked or even dominated the year just ending? In sending out a mass mailing, even to family and friends, there's a thin line between heartfelt and TMI.
It's Just A Joke
I started sending out holiday cards maybe about 25 years ago. My photos have always been jokes, admittedly inspired at first by the idea of mocking the type of wholesome photo — often showing the family, with the dog, gathered by the tree — that was the style at the time.
Like Halloween costumers, I usually make fun of some moment in the news. Some of the images have been in poor enough taste that I ended up breaking down and including a letter as well, to soften the tone.
In recent years, I've come to enjoy writing and sending letters on their own merit. It's a way of lending greater coherence to my own life's story — and connecting with people I'm often otherwise barely in touch with — that maybe works better than a 10-second tweet or series of status updates.
Some people, in some years, like the letter a lot better than the gag photo.
Thinking Of You
But what's the harm if they don't? It's a friendly gesture, not a writing contest. And, as Drexler points out in her Wall Street Journal article, it's not as if many people are in any great danger of having friends send them more than one letter per year.
Whether driven by the desire to boast or amuse or simply good, old-fashioned guilt, holiday cards and letters are almost certainly well-intentioned. Like any gift, they are a sign that a person thought of you when you were absent, demonstrating that you have been in her thoughts, if only for a moment, and thus have some meaning in her life.
That's true even if the attempt was lame. If you wouldn't send back a letter stamped "Return to Sender: Insufficiently Moving," why would you complain about it in print?
Good will to men, you know?
So — even if we are a bit late to this one — we wanted to share video of a flash mob that's making the rounds on the Internet. It features the United States Air Force Band surprising visitors of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington with a joyous performance of holiday classics.
There's not much more to say, other than, enjoy:
Anti-government protesters in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev have toppled a statue of Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin.
Instagram user Arthur_potachik posted this video of the moment:
NPR's Corey Flintoff, who is in Kiev, told our Newscast unit earlier today that opposition groups in the country are calling for a million people to rally against government plans to forge stronger ties with Russia.
"Thousands of protestors have been camping out here in Kiev's central square, but organizers are calling on people from around the country to join them," Corey said. "The protest started as a response to President Viktor Yanukovych's decision to reject a trade and political deal with the European Union."
The EU deal would require Ukraine to make democratic reforms.
The AP reports that protesters today dragged the Lenin statue off its pedestal, decapitated it and then took turns beating it with a sledge hammer, while the crowd chanted, "Glory to Ukraine."
Lenin, of course, is the Russian communist revolutionary whose embalmed body is still on display in Moscow's Red Square.
Sky News reports that the 11-foot statue was erected in 1946 just after the end of World War II. The network adds that the leading opposition politician said the toppling was not planned by the main demonstrators who have taken over Independence Square in Kiev.
"We can say that people organized themselves," Andriy Shevchenko told Sky.
As we've reported, Ukraine has seen daily protests for more than two weeks now.
Update at 12:33 p.m. ET. More Video:
Russia Today has posted a higher-quality video of the moment:
Some women are notoriously sensitive about their age. Not Diana Nyad.
At 64, the inspirational long-distance swimmer says she's in her prime. At the TEDWomen conference in San Francisco Thursday, she recounted her successful fifth attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida. Through her harrowing trip, there was a lot of singing Beatles tunes to herself, hallucinating and determination. Since first reaching for Florida in her 20s, Nyad said her motivations had changed.
"When I turned 60, it wasn't about the athletic accomplishment or the ego of 'I want to be the first,' it was deeper," she said in her talk. "It was how much life is left."
As Nyad — an epitome of resilience in her 60s — talked of seizing her remaining days, precocious 13-year-old entrepreneur Maya Penn seemed unaware of all the time she had ahead. At both ends of the speaker age spectrum, the ladies emphasized how age-appropriateness didn't matter for risk-taking and invention.
Empowerment At Any Age
An animator, fashion designer and businesswoman (-girl?), Penn says she doesn't really think about her own age — except when others point it out to her. She tells NPR that people often say, "'Wow, you do all of this and you're so young!' And you just kind of remember that you're young." During her presentation, her references to "younger" years were met with amazed laughter — how could a 13-year-old have so much to reflect on? — but her intentions are no joke.
Penn says, going forward, she hopes to be "reaching out to other women and girls, empowering them, letting them know, you know, whatever they want to do, they can accomplish — doesn't matter how young or old you are, what your background is. Whatever you want to do, you can do it if you just set your mind to it and don't let anyone stop you."
Look To Young Self
Social entrepreneur Jessica Matthews says we should be looking toward our younger, joyous selves for queues on how to live more fulfilling lives. Her company, Uncharted Play, creates toys that generate electricity — like the Soccket, a soccer ball that could light your lamp with a little play time.
"While our products are very much kind of aimed at children in the developing world, it's almost really a gimmick," she says. "Because the reality is, we know when we put the Soccket in a room — and it happens each time — the teachers kick it first."
When Age Matters
Northeastern University computer science professor Rupal Patel has discovered a niche in which age really does make a difference, though. If you have to rely on a computerized voice to speak, there aren't many options. The automated voice of Stephen Hawking doesn't quite match a teenage girl's.
Patel has found a way to create customized electronic voices. Here's how it works: A donor of a similar age and size of the person who cannot speak records a number of phrases that cover the range of sounds a person could make. The person who cannot form full words is recorded saying basic vowels. She mixes the two sets of sounds to make a new voice.
"What I'm trying to find is a voice that would have sounded like them, if they were able to talk," she says.
Voice, she says, is wrapped up in our identities. And in that case, age is an important factor in finding a certain kind of self-expression.
More than 50 heads of state have confirmed that they will attend Nelson Mandela's funeral in South Africa next week, the country's foreign ministry tells Reuters.
The South African government says that includes all living American presidents — except George H.W. Bush — as well as 26 members of congress.
"The fact that international leaders are making their way to South Africa at such short notice reflects the special place President Mandela holds in the hearts of people around the globe," Collins Chabane, a presidential minister, said in a statement.
President Obama, reports NBC News, will be in South Africa for Tuesday's memorial service. NBC adds:
"On Tuesday, the official memorial service for Mandela will be held at the FNB Stadium in Johannesburg, also known as the Soccer City stadium, the site of the 2010 World Cup final. This will be attended by members of the public and by the Obamas and a number of other visiting heads of state and government, though Chabane said the list of world leaders that would attend had not yet been finalized. The White House confirmed the Obamas' attendance in an email Saturday evening.
"Mandela's body will lie in state in an open casket at the Union Buildings, the official seat of the South African government, from Wednesday through Friday, with viewing open to 'South Africans and selected international visitors and guests,' Chabane said."
Politico has a interesting look at what it takes to plan this kind of last-minute trip for a sitting president. Foreign trips usually takes months of planning by the Secret Service, but a funeral requires that time to be compressed into days.
Politico compares this trip to President Clinton's trip to Israel after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was killed in 1995. They report:
"In that case, Clinton's flight left Washington for Israel just 24 hours after Rabin was killed. American security officials, who were in the air within six hours of Rabin's death, were on the ground for barely 18 hours before Clinton's delegation arrived. Meanwhile, the White House was making immediate decisions for seating arrangements for the three planeloads of American dignitaries.
"'It was an extraordinary trip for the Rabin funeral,' [Dan Rosenthal, a former Clinton assistant] said. 'Former presidents were seated in what is normally the senior staff cabin and most of the staff was seated in the conference room.'
"Of course, ample planning time offers no guarantee of a glitch-free visit: Foreign trips with the usual extended planning timeline can easily go awry as well. [Matt Borges, a former advance man for President George W. Bush] recalled a 2006 stop in Cairo with Vice President Dick Cheney in which the Egyptian military split Cheney from security officials in his motorcade.
"'I rolled out of an airport in Cairo and they split our secure package from the motorcade,' Borges said. 'We had agents ready to open fire to stop the Egyptian military from taking the vice president wherever they would take him.'"